Answering the Most Common Job Interview Question

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and author of Lose the Resume, Land the Job. For more information, see KFAdvance.com.

“Tell me about yourself” is a question you’re certain to be asked at any job interview.

As the CEO of the world’s largest executive search firm, I have conducted thousands of interviews over the past 20 years. The best — and most memorable — answer I have ever received to that question was: “I’ve climbed the highest mountains on every continent, including Everest.”

Of course, anyone who is unimpressed by the person who conquered the “Seven Summits” must have foolishly high standards. But the fact that this candidate achieved such an impressive accomplishment wasn’t the reason she stood out from all the rest.

Too many people respond to “Tell me about yourself” by essentially giving a recital of their resume.

This candidate, however, shared something that showed who she really was beyond a piece of paper: a person who was adventurous, curious, goal-oriented and disciplined. More importantly, it was clear that she had the ability to apply lessons learned from past experiences to new challenges.

But that’s not all. When I then asked about the first thought that ran through her head upon reaching the summit of Mount Everest, she didn’t wax philosophical or go off about how she’d done something most of us can’t even contemplate.

Instead, she laughed and said, “How the heck am I going to get down?” This showed her ability to engage others with humor and humility.

I knew right then and there that she was a highly-qualified person anyone would want on their team — and the realization came through an exchange that lasted less than a minute. You don’t need to be a world-class mountaineer to stand out in a job interview. Here’s my advice on how to nail the most common interview question:

1. Take a risk to get personal.

Most people are so eager to show off all the work projects they’ve been involved in. Don’t worry. There will be time for that: the interviewer has reviewed your resume and will ask you plenty about your expertise.

“Tell me about yourself” is an invitation for you to share a very short anecdote or some brief personal information that will allow the interviewer to know something about your life outside of work.

2. Don’t be boring.

Everyone has something interesting to share about themselves. I’ve heard people talk about everything from being a world-class sushi chef to an ice carver.

It’s also important to tell it in a way that makes you memorable: you finished your first triathlon, you participate in competitive sports, you served in the Peace Corps, you’re an accomplished cellist, you’re writing your first detective novel. If the information showcases a unique facet of yourself — and especially if you can link it to what you can bring to your next job — then go for it.

3. Show your purpose and passion.

Another way to think about the question is: “What gets you up every morning?” 

The person also wants to know what your sense of passion and purpose is. That volunteer work on a farm cooperative in South America, for example, shows you have a global perspective. Running your first 10K shows you like a challenge. It doesn’t matter how big or small the accomplishment, as long as it shows you’re striving to improve yourself. When people are motivated by contributing to something bigger than themselves — something with purpose and meaning — they derive more satisfaction.

4. Be authentic.

Showing authenticity is one of the most important things you can do in a job interview. Relax, be yourself and tell the truth.

Don’t approach the interview like you’re auditioning for Broadway. It’s more than obvious when someone is trying to memorize their lines and “play the part.” Also, if you inflate what you’ve done or outright invent a story about yourself, you’ll be exposed — and then everything you say about yourself will be questioned.

Authors

  • Gary Burnison

    Chief Executive Officer

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